It’s been two weeks since Edgar Maddison Welch, armed with an assault rifle and a handgun, commandeered a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. in a fruitless hunt for evidence of a “child sex slave ring”. On 16 December, Mr Welch pleaded “not guilty” to a federal count of interstate transportation of a firearm and ammunition, as well as two D.C. offences: assault with a dangerous weapon and possessing a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence.
Should he be found guilty, the young father of two girls will face stiff penalties: the federal firearms and D.C. assault charges each carry a statutory maximum of 10 years in prison, while the D.C. firearms count carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.
Mr Welch’s alleged actions and subsequent arrest have provoked an internet-wide discussion of the dangers of fake news and conspiracy theories, as he appears to have been inspired by online discussion about the false “Pizzagate” story.
In an interview with the New York Times, reported on CBS News, Mr Welch stated, “I just wanted to do some good and went about it the wrong way.”
Welch, 28, told the newspaper he started driving to Washington from his Salisbury, North Carolina, home intending only to give the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant a “closer look.” But while on the way, he said he felt his “heart breaking over the thought of innocent people suffering.”
Welch would not say why he brought an AR-15 into the pizza shop and fired it, the newspaper reported.
Asked what he thought when he found there were no children in the restaurant, Welch said: “The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent.” But he would not completely dismiss the online claims while talking to the newspaper, conceding only that there were no children “inside that dwelling.”
Paved with good intentions…
In some ways, Mr Welch reminds us of many of the rank-and-file Hoaxteaders, such as Guidance 2222. Shortly after Hoaxtead began to be promoted within the online conspiracy community, Guidance 2222 became convinced that children in a church and school in Hampstead were being routinely sexually abused, forced to murder infants, and made to take part in cannibalism as part of a “death cult”.
His response was to investigate: rather than weaponry, he broke out his trusty smartphone and went walkabout near Christ Church. In a now-infamous video, he terrified a mother and her young child, demanding to know whether they were members of the alleged paedophile ring.
We don’t know much about Guidance 2222’s early motivations, but in his most recent video he confessed
I don’t know what the answer is. I tried my best. But what can you do? When it’s the mum and the boyfriend’s case…it’s up to them now, they wanna deal with it. They’re calling it mind control now, that’s their big thing—they got their t-shirts, their mugs, their nutritional seminars. I told them I don’t agree with it, and I still don’t agree with it. There’s nothing more I can do.
Guidance 2222 and Mr Welch both profess to still believe in their respective hoaxes, but both have expressed doubts about the information they’ve been fed by online conspiritainment purveyors. The “intel wasn’t 100%”. Those in charge might have had ulterior motives.
Hoax promoters and true believers
In the many months that we’ve been reporting on Hoaxtead, we’ve noted that there are two main types of Hoaxteaders: the promoters, who are in it for money, ego, or both; and the foot-soldiers, who tend to be all-purpose conspiracy consumers.
One of our commenters described some of the promoters as creating “hard-core conspiritainment porn” for consumption by people like Mr Welch and Guidance 2222: people who for whatever reason might be drawn into their enticing and heady fantasy land, where any unknown nobody is able to become not just a keyboard warrior, but a “self-investigator” of imaginary cults and “child sex slave rings”.
These and others like them are the Walter Mittys of the internet: bored and inconsequential in real life, they feel a desperate need to embark on heroic quests…failing to realise that in attempting to become real-life heroes, they are allowing themselves to be drawn, sheep-like, into an engineered fantasy world.
And that in doing so, they are ultimately doing the very opposite of what they first intended: rather than becoming heroic saviours, they are now victimising and terrorising the innocent.